Friday, July 18, 2008

WOTD: Fingerspitzengefühl

So far, we’ve had Words of the Day derived from Greek and Latin. One of these days I’ll get around to something genuinely English, ab origine, but today I want to talk about a German one (hat tip to Mark Hooker for the suggestion). Of course, German and English are basically linguistic cousins; the further back you go, the more alike they look. Yet German, much more than English, is a compounding language — that is, it’s very common in German to glue a whole series of words together into a long, intimidating-looking construction. You may have seen some of these eye-splitting compounds before (here are a few, in case you haven’t). Such words capture remarkably unique, specialized, and/or subtle shades of meaning. And because such expressions would require much greater verbosity in English, many of these wonderful German words have been adopted into English. I’m sure you’re familiar with a few of them already — Zeitgeist, Schadenfreude, Weltanschauung, and my personal favorite, Quellenforschung. You should find all of these in any reasonably thorough English dictionary. Well, maybe not Quellenforschung.

Even less likely, today’s word, Fingerspitzengefühl — which you’d be hard-pressed to find in any English dictionary. It’s not in the Random House Unabridged, Webster’s Revised Unabridged, Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary of English, or the American Heritage Dictionary. It’s not even in the Oxford English Dictionary (though I would guess it will end up in one of the supplements sooner or later). Despite that, one does find the word making its way into English, and not just recently, as in this notable political op-ed by William Safire from the New York Times, March 9, 1995. Safire’s loose definition is also a good starting point, where he describes Fingerspitzengefühl as “that combination of sure-footedness on slippery slopes and sensitivity to nuance familiar to mountain goats, safecrackers and statesmen.” More recently (2005), Safire wrote a language column about filling our “vocabugap” with foreign words such as Schadenfreude and Fingerspitzengefühl, where he refined his definition of the latter into the more succinct “sandpapered-fingertip sensitivity of a safecracker.”

The word literally means “fingertips-feeling” and refers to an intuitive flair, a sensitive touch, an instinctive feeling or sixth sense about things derived from delicate tactile exploration. The German-English Dictionary of Idioms: Idiomatik Deutsch-Englisch defines “Fingerspitzengefühl für etw[as] haben” as “to have instinctive tact, to have tact and sensitivity, to have a fine instinct for s[ome]th[ing]” [1]. The word is often used in the context of business and politics. We saw in William Safire’s opinion that former American president Bill Clinton lacked it. By contrast, Adolf Hitler was said to possess a surfeit of Fingerspitzengefühl, demonstrating an often uncanny “sense of opportunity and timing.” I believe the same could be said of Napoleon. It’s an essential qualification for diplomats and ambassadors, who need a delicate touch (such as can only be made by fingertips alone) for maneuvering through the dangerously tortuous workings of diplomacy. The Diplomat’s Dictionary would seem to agree, quoting Martin Herz:
What [...] makes a good diplomat, and thus a good ambassador, [... is] a kind of empathy which comes from years spent in cross-cultural communication, Fingerspitzengefühl (the feeling one has in the tips of one’s fingers) which is sometimes acquired by amateurs but is more frequently found among people who have had a great deal of experience [...] [2].

Moreover, if you don’t have Fingerspitzengefühl, you might be said (if I may borrow from Swedish) to have instead tummen mitt i handen “a thumb in the middle of your hand” — a rough analogue to the English idiom “two left feet all thumbs.”

Diane Shaw, Special Collections Cataloguer at the Smithsonian Institution Libraries offers another variation: “Specifically in relation to rare books, I believe ‘fingerspitzengefuehl’ means a person with a special knack for identifying true bibliographical treasures that other persons lacking this quality might overlook. It would be appropriate for the lucky man or woman who finds a book worth thousands of dollars on a $10 bargains shelf in a used bookstore” [source; and see here for another similar account]. I think I have that, or a touch of it anyway, to judge by some of my experiences with antiquarian bargain-hunting. I’ve been known to happen upon first editions at my local used bookstores for just two or three dollars sometimes, then sell them to collectors for $100-200. Certainly a better return than you’re going to get putting your money into IndyMac. :)

And finally, let me just suggest that when it came to that intuitive, delicate touch, that fine instinct for navigating tricky slopes among the towering egos of comparative philology in the early 20th century, Tolkien certainly seemed endowed with his share of Fingerspitzengefühl.

Your homework: see if you can find a way to slip this Germanic sesquipedalian into your everyday conversation. Good luck! :)

[1] Schemann, Hans and Paul Knight. German-English Dictionary of Idioms: Idiomatik Deutsch-Englisch. New York: Routledge, 1995, p. 241.

[2] Freeman, Jr., Charles W. The Diplomat’s Dictionary. Washington DC: National Defense University Press, [1993], p. 132.


  1. Fahrvergnügen!!!


  2. I would suggest "all thumbs" rather than "two left feet" as an English analogue to "tummen mitt i handen".

  3. PJ, do you remember that was the name of Maid Marian’s Lady in Waiting’s horse in Robin Hood: Men in Tights? :)

    Seriously, though, yeah, that’s another great example of just what I’m talking about in this post. Thanks!

  4. N.E. Brigand: of course, much better. I was originally thinking of adding “two left thumbs” — but why I didn’t recall “all thumbs” is quite beyond me. Maybe I have a thumb in the middle of my brain today! :)

    There should be an unpronounceably long German compound for ‘the tendency to overcomplicate cross-lingustic comparisons and, in the confusion and dizzying swirl of flying umlauts, to overlook the most obvious corollary’ ... I wonder how long that word would be! ;)

  5. So how do you pronounce it? I haven't studied German yet (which is really a bad on my part, considering my quite possible future in theological studies).

  6. Hey Alex. There are two ways to pronounce it: like a German, and like an American. :)

    I can’t rely on the availability of IPA symbols here on the web (a common problem; and in any case, that might not help you if you don’t read IPA :), so I’ll just give you a good guide, based on each element:

    1) Finger — Basically would sound like “sing a”, as in “sing a song”, only with a different initial consonant. For a loose American approximation, one could just pronounce this like the English word “finger”. The emphasis is on the first syllable.

    2) Spitzen — rhymes with Santa’s reindeer Blitzen, only with the initial consonant cluster that would be represented in English as “shp”. For the loose American version, “sp” as in “spit” should suffice. The emphasis is on the first syllable.

    4) Gefühl — Here, the emphasis is on the second syllable. The first bit, “ge” is pronounced with a hard g, more or less as one might say in English “geh” or “guh”, but the second syllable is more difficult for American speakers because the ü isn’t a part of Modern English phonology. It's the same fronted-u one finds in French rue or lune. Tolkien represented this sound in Sindarin with a y, as in yrch “orcs”, and this is how the same sound was written in Old English, before we lost that phoneme. For a loose American version, pronouncing it like the English word “fool” should be all right.

    Practice that, bearing in mind the words of Hamlet:

    Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc’d it to you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines.

  7. Step 1, then 2, then 4?! Like I said to Brigand, a thumb in the middle of my brain today. TGIF, folks!

  8. Where would the stress be?

  9. The primary stress, as in most Germanic words is on the first syllable, with secondary stress of almost equal value on the third and sixth.

  10. The FishWife7/20/2008 1:25 PM

    1) My amazing husband is a Quellenforschunger! :)

    2) Go, PJ!

  11. Danke, FishWife! Ich liebe dich. ;)

  12. Tolkien represented this sound in Sindarin with a y, as in yrch “orcs”, and this is how the same sound was written in Old English, before we lost that phoneme.

    Even my limited Sindarin is better than my non-existant German, so this makes perfect sense to me.

    Ya got to love a blog that explains German by comparing it to Sindarin! :)

  13. Even my limited Sindarin is better than my non-existant German, so this makes perfect sense to me. [...] Ya got to love a blog that explains German by comparing it to Sindarin! :)

    Hahae, thanks. I’m glad that was helpful. I figured people would take it as just an excuse to bring Tolkien into the post (which, I’ll admit, it partly was).

    But that’s the thing: many languages share phonological elements, and you can make a lot of headway with people by mentioning more than one. You might, for example, have trouble trying to explain the th sound to an Italian speaker (as I had reason to comment here on Lingwë not too long ago), but if that Italian person speaks Greek, then all you have to do is tell them it’s a θ. Problem solved. :)

  14. Great explanation and again I realize it is the best name for my company! Start the day with a smile.